So I sit at another crossroads. Behind me (as discussed in Part 1) are the wrecked remains of my previous efforts to reach street-style photography heaven. The dSLR and the point-and-shoot, two sound and satisfying imaging vehicles, were no match for the rugged terrain of street photography. Ahead of me is my goal — fast, efficient street shooting — where the camera becomes an enabler instead of an impediment, and life’s minor moments become a documented part of history. But the road is blocked by the exorbitantly high price of the digital Leica. To my left, as discussed in Part 2, is the road to Retroville. With a 55 year inventory of classic M–mount lenses, numerous mechanical rangefinder bodies and old-school film processing, it’s a land of simple pleasures and simple times — a place where a photo buff can while away his remaining days while the rest of the world passes him by. To my right is… hey… what IS to my right?

A Detour

Last September, Panasonic and Olympus announced a new camera format: Micro Four Thirds (MFT). The original Four-Thirds format, which was released a few years ago, never really ignited in the marketplace and for good reason: it offered no compelling advantage to the existing range of dSLR cameras from Canon or Nikon. Four-Thirds lenses were still bazookas, and Four-Thirds SLR bodies were still curvaceous black bricks. In fact, the only thing you really “gained” was something you lost — sensor size. The Four-Thirds sensor is actually smaller than the APS-C proportioned sensor contained in most consumer-level dSLR’s, and both professionals and advanced amateurs were clamoring for cameras with larger, full-frame sensors. So what good is a big, heavy dSLR if it doesn’t have a big, beautiful, light-sucking sensor? Panasonic and Olympus took note of the industry’s collective shrug, and created the Micro Four Thirds (MFT) format.

Using the same sensor size as the standard Four-Thirds format, the two companies decided to actually capitalize on that compactness, and chose to completely eliminate the mirror from the SLR body — a standard feature in every previous SLR. In fact, without a mirror, it’s not even an SLR anymore. That’s because the “R” in “SLR” means “Reflex.” When you look in the viewfinder of an SLR, there is a mirror that reflects light from the front of the lens into your eye. When you take a picture, that mirror needs to swing up and out of the way (hence, “reflex”), so that light can reach the actual photo sensor. With the evolution of digital photography, point-and-shoot cameras have chosen to tap into the sensor’s actual signal and, instead of showing an optical image, they display a “televised” image on the rear-panel’s LCD. By eliminating the mirror, and the swing radius it needs to mechanically flip out of the way, the MFT format echoes the point-and-shoot methodology, and enables manufacturers to create smaller camera bodies using a larger sensor. And, since the lenses can now mount so much closer to the sensor, MFT lenses will be much smaller than their SLR counterparts. MFT simply capitalizes on the display method employed by point-and-shoot cameras: It reads a digital signal directly off the imaging sensor and sends it to an LCD. In the case of Panasonic’s first MFT camera, they’ve implanted a tiny little LCD in an eye cup, complete with diopter, so the experience will be similar to looking through an SLR’s viewfinder.

I must admit that I found the format intriguing, and decided to keep an eye on future developments. It was, I surmised, a format of the future, but not a format I would immediately adopt. First, I found the idea of pressing a tiny little TV screen to my eye somewhat ridiculous. Second, I’ve found the speed and accuracy of contrast-detect focusing (as employed by point-and-shoot cameras) to be far inferior to an SLR. Third, there is only one MFT body in existence — the Panasonic G1 — and I found its fake consumer SLR stylings to be rather distasteful. Fourth, since MFT is a new standard, there are actually only TWO lenses currently in the entire MFT lineup. Both are slow. Both are zooms. Both are cheapy little pieces of plastic. So, ultimately, I drove right through the tiny little hamlet of MFT Town, made note of its potential to one day be a viable format, then went straight back to researching home prices in Retroville. And then something interesting happened…

House on a Hill

Almost immediately, small, enterprising companies started making lens adapters for the MFT format — adapters that would let you mount all manner of old rangefinder lenses on a G1, including lenses designed for Leica’s M-mount. Whoah! Suddenly, the G1 wasn’t hampered by a dearth of lenses. With just a little ring of metal, you could mount old Leica, Voigtländer, and Zeiss optics on that body. The G1 was lens-starved no more. Instead it was bathing in a sea of optical riches.

So I suspended my property search in Retroville, jumped in my car and sped back to MFT Town. I decided to actually try out a Panasonic G1, and see just how bad it was to frame photos through an electronic (rather than optical) viewfinder. Score one for Panasonic — it’s not as nice as an optical viewfinder, but it’s infinitely better than I feared. And that contrast-based focusing? It’s not dSLR-fast, but it smokes any point-and-shoot I’ve ever tried to focus with. And the cheap little kit lens that comes with the body? No, it’s not the sort of formidable fast glass that I love to use — but it’s surprisingly contrasty, reasonably sharp, and void of any chromatic aberration whatsoever. Who’d have thought? Right out of the box, the Panasonic G1 is actually a respectable camera — deftly blending some of the imaging benefits of a dSLR with the portability and discreetness of a point-and-shoot.

In fact, the Panasonic G1 was looking like a mighty fine place to try and hang my street-photography hat. It wasn’t appreciably larger than my hot-rodded LX3, but would operate far faster. Its ugliness — styled to resemble a consumer level, fixed-lens, point-and-shoot, quasi-SLR — meant that it wouldn’t stand out in a crowd. And its diminutive lenses would never draw attention to themselves. But the most important point in the G1′s favor is its adaptability — specifically, the fact I’d be able to purchase an adapter and mount rangefinder lenses. This would give the camera a clear view of Retroville, but still provide me with all the modern conveniences of digital. So I gathered up some old gear, sold it on Craigslist, took the cash to my local dealer, grabbed a crowbar, turned right at the crossroads, and headed headlong into the process of trying to force the Panasonic G1 to be the street camera I always wanted, but never had.

So the question is, can the Panasonic DMC-G1 be enough like a Leica to satisfy my needs? Can it make me forget that I’d like a Leica? The answer will be posted in Part 4.

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©2009 grEGORy simpson
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